on September 22, 2016
A few weeks ago I had the special honor of getting to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Star Trek, held at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC. I was so psyched to get to be there that I Photoshopped a picture from a classic Star Trek fan favorite of Kirk, Spock, Doc, Uhura, and the entire crew on the Bridge of the USS Enterprise.
You might think because Sulu was an Asian American that he would be my favorite. Because as a kid born and raised in the US, I often felt cognitive dissonance whenever Sulu spoke. Over time I had come to accept that all Asians on TV had to have a funny accent—so as a kid I thought, “Was something wrong with Sulu? He speaks perfect English.” He talks like me. Weird.
But, instead of Sulu, Scotty was the one who I idolized. Scotty could fix anything. He was an “engineer”—I didn’t know what that meant at the time. But he’s the reason I went to MIT to study and become an engineer.
Anyways, the night prior to the 50th anniversary event, I was just so proud of myself. I Photoshopped my own face on top of Scotty’s, to wear his red Engineering shirt to stand with the rest of the crew on the Bridge. I showed the freshly edited photo on my iPhone to my college-age daughter who knew a little about Star Trek. She said, “Cool, dad. I like space.” And then I showed it to my 10-year old daughter who looked at the photo carefully and quietly. Not knowing anything about Star Trek, and because she had just overheard that it involved space and thinking it was new, she squinted at the screen and asked, “Is that Dr. Mae Jemison? We just studied her in school.” She was of course referring to Nichelle Nichols playing Lieutenant Uhura.
It was a strange moment. Because it was the exact reverse of the kid who thought that Sulu was talking weirdly—for speaking normally. Because for there not to be an African American astronaut like Dr. Jemison in the photo it would have been weird for my daughter.
It made me think of how a photograph from the ‘60s of an implausible fictional world that Roddenberry had imagined—one where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. went so far as to ask Nichols to not leave the show after its first season to pursue her career on Broadway, saying to her, “What you accomplish for us will only be real if you stay.” It is profound how Dr. King correctly predicted Nichols’ presence on national television in the ‘60s could become a statement of logic and plausible fact 50 years later to a child in the 21st century. And of course to become the real inspiration to not only Dr. Jemison, but to NASA Administrator and astronaut Maj. Gen. Charles Bolden and to many other African Americans in the sciences.
Gene Roddenberry foresaw a world of inclusivity 50 years ago, and by helping us see it, let us grow to become it.
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